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Understanding the EU Rule of Law mechanisms

Written by Eva-Maria Poptcheva,

EU Law

© Esin Deniz / Fotolia

The European Union is founded on values common to all Member States. These are supposed to ensure a level of homogeneity among Member States, while respecting their national identities, and so facilitate the development of a European identity and their integration based on mutual trust. Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union provides mechanisms to enforce EU values, based on a decision by the Council with the participation of the Commission and Parliament.

The current mechanism is said to be unusable due to the high thresholds needed to adopt a decision in the Council, as well as Member States’ political unwillingness to use it. Various new approaches have been proposed by academics and by political actors, from a new independent monitoring body – the ‘Copenhagen Commission’, through extending the mandate of the EU Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA), to introducing the possibility for the EU to suspend national measures suspected of infringing EU law.

In 2014, the Commission adopted a new ‘Rule of Law Framework’ featuring a structured dialogue between the Commission and the Member State concerned and Commission recommendations and follow-up. On 13 January 2016, the Commission decided for the first time to initiate such an assessment of the situation in a Member State, with regard to two Polish laws – on the powers of the constitutional court and on the management of state TV and radio broadcasters.

The European Parliament launched the idea of a ‘European fundamental rights policy cycle’ with the cooperation of the EU institutions, Member States and the FRA, as a ‘new Copenhagen mechanism’ to monitor the situation in Member States. At present, Parliament’s Civil Liberties and Justice Committee is drafting a legislative own-initiative report on an EU mechanism on democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights, relying on common and objective indicators.

Read the complete briefing on ‘Understanding the EU Rule of Law mechanisms‘ here.

Key events regarding the EU rule of law

1997, Amsterdam Treaty: Article 7 sanctioning mechanism for violation of rule of law, fundamental rights and other basic principles is established.

2000: Bilateral sanctions against Austria in response to the arrival in government of the Freedom Party (FPÖ).

2009, Lisbon Treaty: EU values are introduced into the Treaties, replacing the previous ‘principles’.

2010-2012: Several Member States under scrutiny for possible rule of law violations: France for collective expulsions of Roma, Romania for non-compliance with Constitutional Court decisions, Hungary for measures affecting the independence of its judiciary.

March 2013: Commission presented the EU Justice Scoreboard, including statistics on the justice systems in the Member States and data on the relationship between compliance with the rule of law and the functioning of the internal market.

March 2013: Letter from the Foreign Affairs Ministers of Denmark, Finland, Germany and the Netherlands to the Commission President, calling for a new mechanism to safeguard fundamental values in the EU.

March 2014: Commission adopts a Communication on a Rule of Law Framework as an earlier phase, complementary to the Article 7 TEU mechanisms.

December 2014: Council decides to hold an annual ‘dialogue’ in the General Affairs Council on the ‘rule of law’ in Member States.

2015/2016: EP legislative own-initiative report ‘EU mechanism on Democracy, the Rule of Law and Fundamental Rights’ (LIBE Committee).

13 January 2016: European Commission launches structured dialogue with Poland under the Rule of Law Framework.

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